“What if a light pole told you to watch out for an icy patch of sidewalk ahead? What if an app told you the most populated route for a late-night walk to the El station by yourself? What if you could get weather and air quality information block-by-block, instead of city-by-city?” Those are the questions you are asked at the City of Chicago’s “Array of Things” website, a site that introduces one of the most ambitious – and controversial – projects ever undertaken by City of Chicago authorities.
The “Array of Things” is Chicago’s own rendition of the “Internet of Things,” and it’s coming to a light pole near you. According to Wikipedia, the Internet of Things is the internetworking of physical devices, vehicles, buildings, and other physical items embedded with electronics, software, sensors, actuators, and network connectivity that enable these objects to collect and exchange data. Put more simply, it means connecting items to the internet and then remote-controlling those items or using those items to gather information – presumably for the benefit of everyone.
The City of Chicago is now placing sensors on light poles to monitor, photograph, and listen to what’s happening on our streets. The nodes reportedly have an array of sensors, abundant bandwidth and computing capability, and the ability to transmit large amounts of data without interruption. It’s a project that will cost an estimated $7 million. Some are saying the monitors will comprise what may be the largest urban data collection system in the world. Others are concerned that the Array of Things will become the world’s largest surveillance and intelligence system.
PRECISELY WHAT WILL BE MEASURED AND MONITORED?
When the system is fully implemented, it will purportedly help police officers fight crime – and much more. Cameras will be able to monitor pedestrians and vehicles. A microphone will monitor noise levels. Temperatures, pressure, light, and vibrations will also be measured, monitored, and assessed. The nodes include sensors that will check the city’s air quality and identify pollen, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and ozone. Even the magnetic field will be monitored.
When the system is in place, the information it collects will be made available publicly through the city’s Open Grid portal (opengrid.io), although it’s not quite clear yet how the city’s leaders residents, businesses, and non-profits will make use of the collected data. “We can’t even begin to imagine what they are going to do with it,” Chicago’s chief information officer, Brenna Berman, told Computerworld.com.
A graver concern is how law enforcement will use the data. Racial profiling is one concern. The ability to listen in on private conversations is another. Will information be shared with law enforcement agencies outside of Chicago, such as federal immigration authorities? At the Array of Things website, visitors are told that “privacy protection is built into the design,” but how extensive is that privacy protection, and will it hold up over time?
Chief information officer Brenna Berman has outlined a rather precise plan for how city officials will take advantage of the information they compile. A 17-member team of business intelligence experts, data scientists, and database administrators will use the data for “predictive analytics” to find out what is having an impact on the city, to detect trends that may be emerging, and to determine what actions, if any, the city should take in response to the data it gathers.
WHAT NEW INFORMATION WILL BECOME AVAILABLE?
In the past, Chicago city officials have depended on the intermittent collection of information to measure automobile and pedestrian traffic flows. The cameras connected to the new system can take photographs at a rate of two pictures per second, which will give city authorities the ability to track traffic flows continuously and help them determine ways to improve traffic and safety conditions in the city.
Brenna Berman says that while the city has abundant data regarding traffic collisions, “what we don’t have is information about accidents that almost happen or near misses.” That information, Berman says, should help improve safety on city streets. Photographs of actual traffic collisions, especially those taken in the moments immediately prior to a crash, will be helpful in assigning liability for accidents, and in personal injury proceedings, those photos may help personal injury victims win their cases and the compensation they deserve. Of course, accident photographs will also help blameless drivers accused of negligence to prove their innocence.
The National Science Foundation has supported the Array of Things with more than $3 million. Most of that amount has been spent for research and development to create the project’s base platform. With support from the city and a number of businesses, the value of the entire project is between $6 million and $7 million. Installation of the Array of Things should be completed during 2018.
HOW WILL THE “ARRAY OF THINGS” BENEFIT YOU PERSONALLY?
If you live or work in Chicago, will the Array of Things benefit you personally? Some of the benefits won’t be known until they emerge over time, but the immediate benefit will be enhanced safety. In northern cities like Chicago, it’s helpful to know if there’s a slippery patch of sidewalk in front of you. Traffic engineers will probably add, remove, or rearrange traffic signs and signals on the basis of the information they gather, so traffic should flow more smoothly at peak hours. Those benefits are helpful, but what about the negatives? Will the system be invasive and present a threat to personal privacy? That, too, remains to be seen.
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